Wait lists suggest lack of affordable care

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Despite increased funding commitments from both the state and the School District, Philadelphia families are confronting a shortage of quality, affordable child care.

Groups whose access to child care is problematic include teen parents and Latino and Asian families, child care advocates say.

The clearest sign of the child care gap is that there is a wait for virtually every form of free or subsidized child care in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia parents seeking subsidized child care face waiting lists in four of the city’s five regions, with waits ranging from two to more than four months.

Despite its addition of 1,200 early childhood slots over the past three years, the School District also has long waiting lists for both its Head Start and Bright Futures programs.

“We’re probably serving about 50 percent of the Head Start-eligible children,” said District early childhood chief Donna Piekarski. “We always have a waiting list. Federal Head Start really needs to be bumped up.… That’s where the bulk of the money is.”

In recent years, the growth in federal Head Start funding has been modest, and it has been through state funding increases that the program been able to grow in Philadelphia.

One group that has been adversely affected by the waiting list for child care subsidies is teen parents. Piekarski noted, “We have had reports of some of our teens being on this list for a very long time and then missing school because they don’t have anyone to care for the baby.”

The state established a set-aside of subsidy funds for teens to ensure that they do not get stuck on waiting lists, but some advocates say the system has not been working.

The current squeeze on affordable, quality child care has brought a significant shift in the number of low-income families who are using less expensive, informal care. While in the late 1990s, nearly all subsidy dollars went to licensed or regulated providers, the high cost of formal care and looser restrictions allowing parents to use child care subsidies for relative or neighbor care have led to a surge in usage of informal, unregulated care among subsidized families.

Research suggests that such care may not provide the same long-term benefits as formal preschool. The shift toward informal caregivers will also make it difficult for the District and School Reform Commission (SRC) to achieve one of the 2008 goals of their Declaration of Education – that “85 percent of all students entering kindergarten will have participated in a formal preschool experience.”

Piekarski commented, “The SRC knows that we can’t meet that target unless some additional funding sources are identified for early childhood.”

The percentage of Philadelphia kindergartners who have had formal preschool experience has been hovering in the high 60s, but is significantly lower for Asians (48 percent) and Latinos (57 percent), and in the North and Central East Regions. The District has targeted those regions for Head Start expansion.

If the state provides another increase in Head Start dollars, Piekarski is looking to focus new funds on four regions – Central East, North, South and Southwest – because of “major influxes of immigrants in those areas.”

Mary Graham, executive director of The Children’s Village, a center in Chinatown, says in that community, there is demand for more formal, licensed child care.

“The problem is most of those that come here need a subsidy and find themselves on a state subsidy waiting list,” she explained. “There are openings, true, but a long wait to get the subsidy.”

“Only the lowest incomes get assistance,” Graham added, saying affordability is a big issue for many who do not qualify for subsidies.

Thoai Nguyen, executive director of SEAMAAC, which provides services for recent Southeast Asian immigrants, sees low usage of formal child care as reflecting the fact that “families feel the mainstream centers won’t meet their child’s needs.”

“Right now the system – post 9/11 – is anti-refugee,” he explained. “There’s a level of distrust of the system in general and subsidies and free services.”

The District is expanding access to its program by contracting out Head Start slots to 23 child care providers, with the District providing professional development, curriculum, and technical assistance to these child care centers.

Deborah Russell-Brown and Janine LaBletta contributed research for this article.